Last May, Claremore junior quarterback Matt Whatley was living the dream — playing in the state championship for the Claremore Zebras baseball team.
Fast forward to November and the Zebras starting signal-caller hopes to even his playoff mark to 1-1 with a win over Tulsa Memorial in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs tonight at Lantow Field.
The last time the Zebras advanced to the postseason in football, Whatley was the starting quarterback as a freshman in 2010.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound quarterback took over at mid-season for departing senior Levi Rudd and steered the Zebras into the first round of the playoffs at Booker T. Washington.
On that rainy, cold night in Tulsa, Whatley and the Zebras fell to a speedy Booker T. Washington squad that featured former wide receiver Tyler Lockett, who is now a playmaker for the No. 2-ranked Kansas State Wildcats.
Booker T. Washington dealt the Zebras a 43-0 loss.
For Zebra head coach Rob Gilbreath and many of the seniors on this year’s playoff squad, it was a night they never want to remember.
“We’ve come a long ways since that 2010 playoff game at Booker T,” Gilbreath said. “The leadership of these seniors and the maturity of our quarterback (Whatley) has been the difference-maker.”
Whatley, who will be a three-year starter as the Zebras’ catcher, has drawn the respect of his teammates on the gridiron with his competitive spirit.
“Matt’s such a great leader and the key to our offensive success,” Claremore senior fullback James Chester said. “We go as Matt goes on offense.”
Through 10 games this season, Whatley has completed 59-of-111 passes for 948 yards and nine touchdowns with six interceptions.
His ability to scrambling is a dangerous asset to the Zebras’ offense, Gilbreath said.
On the ground, Whatley has 73 carries for 267 yards and three touchdowns. In Claremore’s 34-7 win over Grove last Friday, Whatley scooted down the right sideline for a 55-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
“Matt has the ability to burn the corner — whether he’s running or throwing,” Gilbreath said.
“His arm strength is explosive and it’s good to see he finally has his speed back.”
Early in the season, Whatley was hampered by injuries to his ankle, thus limiting his running attempts in Claremore’s spread offense.
Whatley made solid progressions and proved he was back to 100 percent in the Zebras’ huge 23-7 win over Tahlequah.
“Each week since that game with Tahlequah, we’ve added more running plays with Whatley,” Gilbreath said. “Our offense is at its best when Whatley is able to make plays with his feet.”
Since a 20-19 loss to District 5A-4 champion East Central, Whatley and the Zebras have rolled off four-straight wins.
Gilbreath said to his team that it’s a new season tonight.
“Everyone is 0-0. Win and you keep playing. Lose and you go home,” Gilbreath added.
“Tulsa Memorial has won the last two games against us (Claremore), and they have the type of athletes that can take it to the house on any given play.
“If we play aggressive like we’ve done against East Central, Coweta and Collinsville, then we’ll be successful and advancing to the Elite Eight.”
For Whatley, the throw-downs to second base and hitting doubles in the gap can wait.
Right now, it’s ‘playoff time’ in Claremore.